The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said yesterday that even if an investigation shows that Marines killed as many as two dozen Iraqi civilians in Haditha, the guilty men would be a tiny exception, not typical of the Corps’ conduct.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace said that although “it would be premature for me to judge” the outcome of a Pentagon investigation, he thinks it critically important to make the point that if some Marines committed an atrocity there, they “have not performed their duty the way that 99.9 percent of their fellow Marines have.”
Interviewed on CBS’ “The Early Show” as the nation observed Memorial Day, honoring those lost in war, Gen. Pace pledged, “We’ll get to the bottom of the investigation and take the appropriate action.”
Asked how such a massacre could have happened, Gen. Pace replied, “Fortunately, it does not happen very frequently, so there’s no way to say historically why something like this might have happened. We’ll find out.”
Gen. Pace’s interview came a day after Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and a prominent critic of the Iraq war, said the incident could undermine U.S. efforts there more than the Abu Ghraib prison scandal did.
Mr. Murtha also charged that the shootings in November at Haditha, a city in the Anbar province of western Iraq that has been plagued by insurgents, were covered up.
“Who covered it up, why did they cover it up, why did they wait so long?” Mr. Murtha said Sunday on “This Week” on ABC. “We don’t know how far it goes. It goes right up the chain of command.”
The incident at Haditha has sparked two investigations — one into the deadly encounter and another into whether Marines sought to cover up what occurred and, in doing so, lied about having killed civilians without justification.
A bomb rocked a military convoy on Nov. 19, killing a Marine. Mr. Murtha, who has been briefed by officials, said Marines then fatally shot unarmed civilians in a taxi at the scene and went into two homes and shot other people.
Iraqis who identified themselves as survivors of the killings described Marines fatally shooting 19 persons in three homes, among them a 77-year-old man in a wheelchair and a 4-year-old boy in one home and five children, ages 3 to 14, in another home, the New York Times reported yesterday.
Those interviewed said the men killed in the taxi were four students and the driver, ages 18 to 25. In one of the homes, said the people interviewed for the Times piece, Marines forced all the women to leave and then killed the four brothers whom they had detained.
One of the Marines in Haditha that day, Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones of Hanford, Calif., told the Los Angeles Times that he took photos and carried out bodies as part of a cleanup crew dispatched to the homes after the shootings. He said he did not witness their deaths.
“They ranged from little babies to adult males and females. I’ll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood. This left something in my head and heart,” Cpl. Briones, 21, told the paper for a story published yesterday.